Book 4 of the Ukiah Oregon Series.
Seemingly abandoned as a toddler, and raised in a series of foster homes, Atticus has always known that he wasn’t human. He thought he was a freak of nature. He believed he was one of a kind, alone in the world…
Boy, is he in for a surprise.
Wen Spencer just keeps getting better.” — Analog
Excerpt from Chapter One
Ludlow Rest Stop, Massachusetts Turnpike, Massachusetts
Sunday, September 19 2004
Atticus smelt the blood first.
He’d parked the Jaguar under the floodlights, and he had just paused, door open, hot cocoa on the roof, in order to pull off his leather jacket before climbing back into the still warm car. A dark blue Honda came cautiously into the rest stop from the dark highway. The bitter cold wind blasted over the Honda and brought him the reek of slaughter.
He checked, focusing on the smell, tracking the car’s movements without watching it. It paused at the decision point of turning into the parking lot or going on to the gas pumps, the right turn signal still blinking in a steady yellow warning. There were four people in the car, three men and a woman. The woman was leaning over the front seat, pointing toward the retro-styled McDonalds with the large yellow arches. Atticus turned to his back to the Honda as the driver scanned the parking lot.
On the other side of the Jaguar, Hikaru, ‘Ru to his friends, picked up on his unease. “The Honda?” Ru pretended to ignore the sedan, seemingly focused on the coffee cup in his hands, tracking the car only with his dark eyes.
“Yes.” Focusing on his sense of smell, Atticus grew aware the Jaguar’s hot engine, oil spilled on the asphalt nearby, food cooking in the McDonalds, the taint of ocean less than a hundred miles away, and massive amounts of old blood. “They’ve got something dead in the trunk.”
“Ah.” Ru sipped his steaming coffee. “Things like that are always a bitch to explain.”
“Do you see anything weird about it, Ru?”
The car cooperated and turned into the parking lot and crawled past them. The driver carefully used proper signals and obeyed all speed limits and picked a nice dark corner of the parking lot, tucked behind a RV.
“Nada.” Ru shrugged one lean shoulder, his black bangs falling into his eyes. “Maybe I need a closer look.” Ru finished his coffee and walked to the nearby trashcan.
Atticus leaned into his car to place his hot cocoa into the front cup holder.
The woman all but bolted from the Hondo, hunched over, clutching at her stomach, her face set in pain. She concentrated on walking, eyes focused at the ground. The men followed, intent on the woman, worried. All four were in their early twenties, wore black running suits; jackets zipped over t-shirts and pistols in shoulder holsters. They smelled faintly of gunpowder, smoke, scorched hair, burnt flesh, and blood.
The men had ignored him, but glared at Ru as he causally stuffed the empty cup into the large, orange and white trashcan. Ru read the bulges under the jackets and the tense body language and didn’t play any mind games with them. He studiously ignored them, walking back to the Jaguar, pulling on his leather gloves.
“A seriously scary foursome.” Ru unzipped his jacket slightly, giving him access to his own gun, as the four vanished into the McDonalds. “I say we see what they’ve got in their trunk.” He made a show of sniffing. “I’m sure I can smell blood now.”
Atticus scoffed at the claim, while he considered the car parked upwind. More than the blood, there was a weird niggling feeling that something was drastically wrong with the car. It seemed to exude terror. How could a car feel afraid?
Ru rapped on the roof, his lock picks in hand. “There’s no telling how long they’re going to be in there!” He sang.
Atticus glanced toward the McDonalds. The foursome was nowhere in sight. “Let’s do it.”
He shut the Jaguar’s door and walked after Ru, keeping watch on the building.
Ru had the trunk open before Atticus even reached the car, murmuring. “Bingo: one body.” Ru stripped off his right glove to reach bare fingertips to the body’s neck. “Question is he really dead or just – oh fuck.”
Atticus looked then. Ru had turned the body’s head and the trunk light shone on a young Native American face, battered and bloody, vaguely familiar.
I know this person, Atticus thought with a lurch.
“Atty,” Ru whispered. “This is you.”
“What? Well, there’s a resemblance–”
“Atty, I’ve seen you dead enough times to recognize your body. This is you. Look, there’s blood mice.”
This was at small forms darting for new cover as Ru shifted the body slightly.
They’re just normal black mice, Atticus thought at first. He’d long resigned himself to being a freak of nature; the one-a-trillion result of the genetics game played with billions of combinations over millions of years. Like the Elephant Man, he’d been oddly malformed, only his monstrosity remained hidden down on the cellular level.
Then he realized that he could feel the mice – little motes of terror moving through his awareness. They’re why the car feels afraid. He looked again at the dead body with the familiar face. His face – just at an angle he wasn’t used to viewing. He’s like me? Atticus laid his hand on the boy’s cheek. The flesh was cold to touch, but it was his skin, his cells, his DNA. It felt like half his body was dead and being examined by a part still alive. He jerked his hand back.
“We’ve got to get him out,” Ru was saying. “And into the Jaguar.”
He’s not ‘like’ me, he is me! Numb, Atticus slowly shook his head. “We call 9-1-1.”
“Atty, if we call 9-1-1, they’ll take him to the morgue and do an autopsy.”
Atticus shuddered at the idea of being not completely dead, but entirely helpless. “We don’t know if he’ll come back to life.”
Ru shook his head. “If he’s like you, it’s going take him hours to heal up from this kind of damage. If he can recover, but we let the coroners take him…”
“Oh, fuck.” That didn’t bear even thinking through. “Okay. Get the Jag.”
Atticus would guess the boy to be only about twenty, but Atticus had aged strangely growing up, still looking in his teens while pushing thirty. Hair as crow black as his own, but long enough for a braid down past the shoulder blades. Boots with a crease mark from shifting motorcycle gear across the top of the left foot. Blue jeans well-worn but had seen a washer in the last few days. A black T-shirt with small bullet holes punched into the chest. Powder burns indicated the boy had been shot at close range. His arms were handcuffed behind his back, where the bullets had shredded part of the design on the leather jacket. Only the words ‘Dog Warrior’ remained.
Who the hell is this? Why did they kill him?
The damage done had been more than just bullets. Road dirt, abrasions, paint, and shattered bones indicated that the boy been hit by a car first. Judging by the angle of entry for the bullets, he’d been lying prone when shot. Oddly, his killers had then bound his feet and handcuffed him after he’d died. They’d done a through job murdering the boy, but if he were like Atticus, it wouldn’t be enough to keep him dead.
Pulling on his leather gloves, Atticus took the handcuffs and jacket off the boy, leaving them as evidence on the bloody carpet. Ru pulled the Jaguar in beside the Honda and popped the trunk but left the motor running.
“Good compromise.” Ru said of the jacket and handcuffs. “I need to move the bags. Here.” He held out a small cage. “Don’t forget the mice.”
What blood survived spilling out of the Dog Warrior’s body had changed to mice instead of drying on the carpet. They scurried out of his reach as he shifted the body around, a dozen in all, little bundles of fear and worry.
Come here. He called to them as he would to his mice. Come on. Hurry.
He didn’t expect it to work; they weren’t his mice. But they scurried forward, and let him scoop them into the cage.
Ru had shifted their bags into Jaguar’s backseat, tucking in the mouse cage last. “Let’s get out of here, then, before someone calls the police on us.”
Atticus lifted the body up and out of the trunk. As he settled the boy into the Jaguar, Ru tugged back on his right glove and closed the Honda’s trunk tightly.
It took two minutes to steal the body and stow it safely away. Certainly not what Atticus expected they’d be doing when they stopped for a stretch and something warm to drink. Still, it felt weird driving away, knowing what was in their trunk. Atticus supposed that Ru was used to the feeling, all things considered.
Ru was getting “the grin,” enjoying the adrenaline high of doing something outlandishly bold without breaking a sweat. “What do we do about his friends in black?”
Atticus handed Ru his cell phone. “Anonymous tip time.”
“You don’t suppose they are his friends? Certainly I’ve drove around with you in the trunk enough times. We could be leaping to the wrong conclusion.”
“No. They murdered him. The mice are too afraid for them to be friends.”
“Ah.” Ru murmured. “I suppose I always take the handcuffs off you.”
“You’re welcome.” Ru flashed him a grin, and made the call to weave a mix of truth and fiction.
Atticus hated the house. They crossed Massachusetts on I-90 in a nearly straight shot, then dropped down, bypassing Boston until they reached Cape Cod, and then followed increasingly narrower roads until they hooked around a sharp curve and the road stopped altogether. The house sat on a wind swept hill, surrounded by sand dunes and nothing else; a contemporary designed for views, it had walls of glass and sprawling, multi-level decks to extend the living space. Any more windows, and the house would have been a glass box.
Unlike the countless houses they already passed, closed up tight on the cold autumn weekday evening, this one had lights on, and the Ford Explorer filled the carport. Obviously, they were in the right place, even though it felt ghastly wrong.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Atticus said. “This is Lasker’s place?”
“It’s all about appearances.” Ru zipped up his leather jacket. “Got to have flash.”
“Maybe while Lasker was alive. Whose bright idea was it to use his house?”
“I think Sumpter’s.”
Atticus sighed and got out of the Jaguar. The ocean rumbled close by, like a monster hidden by the darkness, scenting the air with salt. Atticus stood in the freezing wind until he accustomed himself to the bombardment of vastly different stimuli. New places always overwhelmed him slightly.
The Dog Warrior was still dead. Ru handled the doors as Atticus lifted the body out of the trunk and carried it into the house.
The downstairs was basically one open area with only furniture to denote where one ‘room’ ended and the next started. A forest of support columns held up the second floor in absence of load bearing walls. To the left a series of French doors gave access to a sprawling deck. To the right, a fieldstone fireplace anchored down the house. Perhaps Lasker had used the house merely as flash — bare as a hotel room, it smelled like one too, only tainted with sea spray, ancient wood fires, and propane cooking gas.
Kyle was in the kitchen area, counting money. The L-shaped, granite-topped island was a disarray of computer equipment, weapons, surveillance cameras and stacks of twenties. Despite it being after midnight, he smelled of fresh soap, and his hair damp from a recent shower. Dressed in a charcoal turtle-neck sweater, gray slacks, and loafers, only Kyle’s perpetual five o’clock shadow kept him from being too painfully stylish for a computer geek. “You hate the house,” he called without looking up from his counting. “It’s too isolated, too open, too many windows, too many doors, and not enough cover. Lasker was an idiot. You’re going to kill Sumpter next time you see him.”
“Yeah, something like that.” Atticus considered where to put the dead body. Upstairs, out of sight, and where it would make a minimum of mess.
“I was starting to worry,” Kyle said.
“We had a delay,” Ru said.
Kyle glanced up, then, and startled. “Holy shit, who the hell is that?”
“Good question.” Atticus started up the stairs to the second floor. “Where’s a bathtub?”
“Master bathroom.” Kyle followed behind Ru, giving directions. “Top of stairs, to the right, at the end of the hall – but you’re not going to put him in there. It’s a Jacuzzi!”
“You want him on the kitchen counter?” Atticus asked.
“Oh gross, no – Shit! I’ve got security running.” Kyle dashed back down the steps.
“Wipe the memory!” Atticus called after him.
The master bathroom looked out over the gray, shifting ocean. The master bath was all black marble and sleek white custom fixtures. Water still beaded on the glass surround of the dual-person shower. The tub was a massive – twice as wide and deep as any normal one – tucked into a bay window.
“I’ll bag this.” Ru cut the bullet-tattered shirt off.
As Ru gingerly cared off the bloody shirt, Atticus undressed the body down to underwear. He was always the subject of this exercise – the dead person needing to be nursed back to life. It was a weird out of body experience to be removed from the focus. His part was always to lay still and be dead.
The murderers had stripped the boy of all belongs; at one time, he had carried a wallet, cell phone, keys, change, a Swiss army knife and a pistol – all now missing. Only microscopic traces of them tainted the cotton fabric of his clothes. The bare basics that remained showed that the similarities between Atticus and the Dog Warrior went past the genetic make up and outward appearances. They both preferred the same hiking boots, cotton boxers, blue jeans, soap, deodorant and shampoo.
From such an identical foundation, how different could they be?
The biker jacket seemed to suggest that the differences could be huge.
Kyle reappeared at the door with the first aid kit. “Ru said to bring this up. What are we going to do if he doesn’t come back?”
What a fucking mess that would be. But you didn’t say that to Kyle. While Ru got off on danger, Kyle liked to feel safe. “I’ll deal with it.”
“We’ve got the buy going down tomorrow night.” Kyle glanced at his watch. “Tonight actually.”
“Kyle, I know.” Atticus opened up the kit and found the antibiotic cream. While the bullets probably lodged foreign material into the wounds, his body usually expelled the matter while healing. Once the wounds were bandaged, Atticus strapped the broken ribs and splinted the shattered arm -apparently when the car had hit the boy, he took the brunt of the damage with his left side. “I’ll figure something out if he stays dead, okay. Do we have all the money?”
“Yeah, I was just counting it for a second time. Phone and cable are up, and I’ve got security running. I’m completely jacked. I also stocked the fridge, and put fresh linen on the beds.”
“Great! Okay, do me a favor.” Atticus told him where and how they’d found the dead body. “Find out, if you can without drawing attention to us, who killed him and what happened after we left.”
“Do you have an ID on him?” Kyle pointed to the boy in the tub.
“No. He was wearing colors.” Atticus described the biker jacket. “The club name was either Dog Warrior or Warriors.”
“There was none.”
The city named at the bottom of the patch identified the chapter that the member belongs to. Club enforcers, who drifted from chapter to chapter, collecting dues, would have ‘Nomad’ printed in place of a chapter name. Now that Kyle mentioned it, Atticus realized how odd it was. Perhaps the jacket hadn’t been a true ‘gang’ jacket.
“See what you can pull up on the name.”
“Right.” Kyle left in his abrupt manner, locked onto something new.
Atticus shook his head and caught sight of himself in the mirror. He studied his reflection for a minute and then looked down at the boy, trying to judge if they were as identical as their genetics and Ru claimed them to be. While he stopped being carded long ago, he didn’t look the thirty-six years that his driver’s license reported. If he seemed solid in his mid- to late-twenties, what age was this boy who seemed only about twenty? The differences between them were slight. Atticus kept his hair in a short, stylish cut instead of the boy’s long braid. The boy seemed to have another inch or two to grow before reaching Atticus’ height; his youth showed in the chin, the column of his neck, and the depth of his chest. Atticus could remember, though, having this build, this face.
Ru came back with a cocoa blast as Atticus splinted the broken arm. “We should get him up if we can, in case Sumpter shows.”
One of the bullets had sliced through a major artery, thus the reason for the entire body shutting down – to keep the heart from pumping out the entire blood supply. Atticus could sense, though, that the wound was healed over. That was promising in and of itself. “Give it a shot.”
Ru held the beer stein of warm mash under the Dog Warrior’s nose. He gave the stein to Atticus to hold, repositioned the boy’s head so the throat was one straight column, and spooned some into the lax mouth. “Come on, come on.” After a minute, he shook his head. “No, its not working.” He thumped back onto the tile floor. “This is going to soooo suck if he stays dead.”
“He’s healing,” Atticus said slowly. If he could control the mice, and sense the body healing, maybe he could influence it even more. “Let’s get him out the tub.”
“Hold on.” With practiced ease, Ru cut off the soiled underwear, wrapped it in plastic, tossed it away, and cleaned the boy. It was embarrassing to know Ru learned the skill on Atticus. Washing his hands, Ru spread a blanket out on the floor. “Okay.”
They lifted the body out of the tub and onto the blanket, tucking the flannel around the cool skin.
Atticus leaned over Dog Warrior, extending his awareness until the boy’s still body seemed like part of his own. He could feel the dormant cells; patiently waiting to for the return of life. Come on. It’s time to be alive. Breathe! The boy’s body arched upwards as Atticus forced it hard into the first breath. Good boy! He let it go slack and nudged the heart into a beat. Breathe! Again the body bent in as the breath rattled into the lungs. Come on. You can do it. Breathe! Like a motorcycle being kicked started, the Dog Warrior lurched through the forced breath, gave sudden half cough, and then gagged as his newly awake stomach decided to reject its contents. Atticus levered the boy up and over the toilet before he could choke and the boy’s stomach emptied. The boy was ice cold, and the vomit splashing over Atticus arm held the same dead chill. The kid was shivering hard, his teeth chattering.
But he was alive. There was a heart thumping hard under Atticus’ palm pressed to the kid’s chest. The kid took deep, deep breaths, like someone that stayed under water to the point of drowning and now come up for air.
“Well, that worked.” Ru said. “Whatever you did.”
With a wolf-like snarl, the Dog Warrior spun to face Ru. Atticus felt the stranger’s anger, fear and despair as the boy started to growl. It was a feral sound, deep in the boy’s chest, inhuman in its resonance and savagery.
“We’re not going to hurt you,” Atticus said. “We’re not the ones that killed you.”
Atticus had been expecting human reactions. As he started to speak, the boy jerked around to face him even while scuttling way from both of them with stunning speed. A moment later, the Dog Warrior was crammed on against the bay window on the other side of the tub, his dark eyes locked on Attics in a steady, unblinking stare that seemed to see into him, to his core, and through, to encompass all that he was and wasn’t.
Belatedly, Atticus realized that — because they were physically identical — the boy hadn’t realized Atticus was there until he spoken.
“It’s okay.” Atticus tried for calm reason. “You’re safe.”
Ru started to move, and the stare flicked to him, lips going back into a silent snarl. Ru lifted the stein. “Cocoa blast?”
The Dog Warrior sniffed, nostrils flaring to catch the scent of the liquid, as he considered the two of them. “Boy” was the wrong word for him. Dead, he seemed a young and helpless human. Alive — even death pale, covered with bandages, arm splinted, and shivering hard as his body fought to climb back to normal core temperature — there was no denying that he was something wild and powerful. Slowly, the Dog Warrior uncoiled from the corner and crept forward and took the large stein in his one good hand.
He drank greedily, getting a dark brown milk mustache, which he licked off. All the while, he watched them with the all-seeing stare.
“What’s your name?” Atticus asked.
“U-U-Ukiah.” Was forced out between chattering teeth.
Atticus exchanged a look with Ru; he’d been found as a toddler in Idaho, just over the Blue Mountains from Ukiah, Oregon. “Like the town? Ukiah, Oregon?”
Atticus waited for him to add a last name, but none was forthcoming.
“W-w-who are you?”
“Atticus. Atticus Steele.”